My ant farm was meant to provide an education in the social behavior of insects. My dad painstakingly assembled the intricate matrix of plastic tunnels and Perspex boxes. It was fascinating to see how industrious these little creatures were, and how selflessly they slaved away at maintaining the colony. Perhaps my parents were hoping I’d go to the ant oh sluggard and learn to do my chores with a dash of diligence. But there was a problem. At first the system was humming like a well-oiled sewing machine. There was plenty of food, every ant was carrying his weight, or more accurately ten times his weight, for the colony’s good. But as any mischievous 11 year old would, I soon got bored with the status quo, and like the Serpent of old, I furtively injected a little conflict into the ant’s paradise.
Enter the ant lion. Despite its fearsome name, these tiny bugs are pretty harmless. They dig tiny conical holes in the ground and when an unsuspecting ant gets trapped in one, the ant lion rears out of the grains and sucks his prey into the abyss of sand. It’s all very tooth-and-claw, and provides free food-chain education and entertainment for bored youth. Just another day in Africa. You can see where this is heading.
Dropping that ant lion into the portal was less dramatic than what my TV-shaped expectations had imagined. There was no insect slasher-fest, no frantic scramble to secure the queen or resist the invasion. The ants didn’t seem jittery or nervous, as they should have been. They just kept plodding along, busy with life…at first. Then, slowly the enterprise slowed down. With the stealth of a sniper, the ant lion picked off his targets with the methodical persistence and clinical precision of a trained assassin.
Needless to say my appalled parents ended the experiment. They felt it was defeating the purpose of the ant farm to deliberately introduce a bloodthirsty intruder. The set up was meant to educate me on how the balanced natural order operates with ecological efficiency. I’d argue that my version did just that, though admittedly from a slightly more macabre angle.
What I learned was also valuable. The created order works with utopian perfection when it is set up according to the intended design; introduce a nefarious element with sinister motives, and the equilibrium is upset, with cataclysmic consequences.
The ant farm failed for one simple reason: it was under attack. A family that is striving to follow God’s design, but is floundering, is under attack.
Christian homes are under a covert attack. In my inexperience I struggled to spot the assailant. I couldn’t tell where the sniper fire was coming from, but I could see the effects of a prevalent and pervasive threat.
The Ghost of Families Future
Do you remember Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol? The bulk of the story is played out as Scrooge is carted around through time and space by various ghosts who show him realities of the past, present, and future that were unknown to him. Well, I’d like you to accompany me on a quick excursion to the alternate reality of two families. One imagined—a kind of “ghost of families future” experience—and the other an actual family my wife and I visited. The specter of our future family, fragmented by its own connectivity, is best described as a fictional, caricature family scene constructed of a composite of the worst parts of my tendencies stuck together.
CASE IN POINT 1: The Fully Wired Family
Scene one: Dripping wet I slid from my en suit bathroom into my bedroom, as I heard the last bars of “The Office” soundtrack. Nuts—missed it! No, not the intro scene to the TV show; I’d never let hygiene get in the way of “The Office.” In our house, that distinct ringtone heralds an incoming call. This was that enigmatic variety: a missed call, with a private number, and no voicemail—I hate it when that happens. I feel like I’ve potentially missed a once in a lifetime opportunity. What a tragedy it would be if I missed the call of someone using me as their expert lifeline in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”
As it turns out this particular caller had set their face like flint to book a dinner with the new pastor and his wife. I soon heard the unmistakable Law & Order “gunk-gunk” sound alerting me to a text message on my phone, followed up by the classic “You’ve Got Mail” notification of an e-mail arriving in my laptop’s inbox. My wife picked the invitation up on Facebook, and conducted the rest of the arrangements via truncated IM chats. The confirmation arrived over Twitter. These were my kind of people.
Scene two: Kim and I arrived, our signature five minutes (fashionably) late. We were greeted at the door by half the hosting couple. She towed us into the living room, which was dominated by a giant plasma-screen idol. We were then promptly abandoned so she could attend to kitchen issues, while her husband tagged in to take next shift of entertaining us until a yodel called him to collect drinks. This frenetic pace kept up all night, which suited me slightly, since making small talk with strangers is easier in short bursts between periods to regroup, as any text addict will tell you. Eventually we were all four conversing in the same room. Their four offspring, however, were only present in studio photographs on the mantelpiece and the faint sounds coming from distant bedrooms, like the whispering “others” from LOST.
Our banal chit-chat was interrupted by a teen who unexpectedly popped his pierced face around the corner to ask what was for dinner. Sheepishly the dad reminded him that the other life forms in the room were actually people who could understand English and should therefore be greeted. A forced smile emerged with a mumbled “What’s up?” All attention was promptly back on his enquiry. It seems he was weighing up the proffered food against the MacMeal his friends were grabbing on their way to the movies. He opted for the home brew, much to his bemused parents’ delight. I think it was the dessert that swung the verdict in our favor. He urgently requested that the affair be commenced soon, as he had pressing social engagements involving a fellow named “Roach” or something equally descriptive. His parents meekly complied and the mom aimed a sudden announcement of dinner down the hallway, in a shrill frequency, which was apparently reserved for summoning the kids (if not the Police).
I excused myself momentarily, and was walking innocently toward the bathroom—third door on the left—when I found myself struck by a discovery like a National Geographic entomologist who stumbles upon an undisturbed nest of creepies in their natural habitat. The bedrooms I passed were occupied by the missing pieces of this family puzzle. Three inert children were in various states of transfixion, plugged into the matrix of entertainment through different ports. One was sprawled on her futon ensconced in the emo oblivion provided by iPod ear buds. A preteen sibling was in an animated state of ecstasy as he had just been promoted to 2nd lieutenant in some Play Station militia. And the third specimen, of the androgynous Gothic variety, made only a cameo appearance that evening—to collect a TV tray of dinner, before skulking back into the dark, like a bear at the zoo coaxed out of its cave barely long enough for tourists to get a snapshot. It took two more shrieks from mom to break the electronic spell (and a wineglass somewhere in the neighborhood, I’m sure).
With three-fourths of the children present, dinner commenced. Mom insisted that all phones were on silent—an instruction that was received with cheeping protestation that betrayed its abnormality; probably because the pastor was present. Mom, however received a text during dinner which was important enough to request a sidebar with Dad about some arrangements that had to do with their pet-sitter.
Scene three: Kim and I drove away in contemplative silence. The experience was lingering with me like the faint buzz that follows you home after a concert. Both Kim and I had sensed there was something out of kilter with this family dynamic. And yet, there was none of the typical dysfunction that we had often encountered on similar pastoral expeditions. There were no tense eye-locking pauses so common in marriage and Spaghetti Westerns. We didn’t witness any embarrassing awkwardness caused by children pushing the boundaries because of the immunity offered by having company. There weren’t any vituperative arguments or verbal jabs. In fact I found the evening quite pleasant, and the family I deemed to be normal, except for the suspicious Hamlet in me who felt a nagging dissonance that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark.
It then occurred to me that it was the very notion that I considered this a normal family, which was so disturbing. As if the aspiration of a Christian home was to keep a peaceful façade at all times, even if that means resorting to Ritalin for Johnny, Prozac for mommy, Monday night basketball for daddy, or in this case the opiate of technological distractions. This family cohabitated the same space, but were living disparate lives.
Their devices designed for convenience and entertainment had successfully fragmented this precious family, and isolated them from one another. And all this occurred with the stealth of a covert operation. The lack of obvious issues had left this family eroded without any alarms sounding the threat, like the gradual, lethal silence of Rayon poisoning.
But the aberrance of the fragmented family wouldn’t be as apparent unless it had a contrast. This foil was supplied when Kim and I visited a real family that would have a real impact on our lives. In living color we encountered the alternate reality of what was possible in a family dynamic as a result of a little self-discipline and simple choices.
Next week Monday I’ll introduce you to a family we met that changed our lives. See you then.
[This is an excerpt from a book on family that will be published later this year, DV.]